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Novel set in Paris, France (Number Seven Rue de Grenelle)

14th May 2013

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, novel set in Paris

We are so pleased that author Charles Lambert agreed to write a guest post for Tripfiction. Beryl Bainbridge refers to him as a seriously good writer…and we were thrilled to discover his writing in Any Human Face, a very noir novel set in Rome, “with an atmosphere which whispers malevolence and intrigue”… and his latest novel The View From The Tower, also set in Rome and wonderfully evocative of the city.

1906040184.01.ZTZZZZZZCharles was born in 1953 in England but, apart from brief spells in Ireland, Portugal and London, has lived and worked in Italy since 1976. He is the author of two novels, as well as a collection of prize-winning stories, The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories. His new novel. He has published a memoir, With A Zero at its Heart and a novella set in post-revolutionary Portugal, The Slave House, is available as a Kindle Single.

I’ll start this by saying that I have an irrational, unconditional love for Paris and its people (yes, really). I can spend hours, with a lump in my throat, cruising the city on Street View, sniffing the virtual air for the abstract pungency of cheese. So when I discovered that the building in which The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set actually exists, my joy knew no bounds. Number Seven Rue de Grenelle is somewhere between Les Invalides and Boulevard Saint Germain, the heart of bourgeois, academic, left-wing Paris. The real building has an understated Prada storefront at the ground floor; in the book, there’s no shop to be seen, and at least part of the ground floor is occupied by one of the novel’s two narrators: concierge Renée Michel. Renée lives a double life. Dumpy, dour, drab on the outside, a citadel of culture at its most refined within. She listens to Mahler, prefers Dutch painting to the Renaissance. A lover of the great Russian novelists, her cat is called Leo. She grapples with the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, before rejecting it as ‘hardcore autism’. She capitalises Art.

Five floors above lives the other narrator, a twelve-year-old girl, Paloma Josse, the daughter of a politician and as ill-adapted to her life as Renée is to hers. Precocious, introspective, repelled by what she sees as the modish intellectual shallowness of those around her, she is planning to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday as a gesture of cultural contempt. The first half of the novel is devoted to the parallel musings of these two characters, isolated from each other and, with the exception of Renée’s only friend, Manuela, from the world of human ties. It’s a long, slow build-up and I’ll admit to a sense of relief when a third character arrives to catalyse the novel into action.

Kakuro Ozu is a Japanese businessman of great wealth and charm who, with the help of Paloma, sees beyond the spiky exterior of Renée to the cultured heart within. Renée’s initial resistance is broken down by some exquisite cooking, a volume of Tolstoy, a musical loo, a birthday dinner; respect, in other words, and recognition. The relationship that develops between the two, paralleled by that between Ozu and Paloma, is one of great charm, and is at the narrative heart of the book. The sadness of Renée’s solitary intellectual life is mitigated by its being shared, and understood. What this grants her, finally, is self-doubt. There’s a lovely moment towards the end of the novel when two of the other residents in the building fail to recognise her and she thinks that ‘sight is like a hand that tries to seize flowing water’, before wondering how well she sees herself. Earlier in the novel, Paloma notes: ‘We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves.’ It’s to the credit of Renée and Paola that both break through the mirror of their convictions and meet someone else.

As Georges Perec (Life: A User’s Manual) knew, pretty much everything that needs to be said about life can be said by studying the workings of a Parisian apartment building. Barbery doesn’t really pull this off. Her aim is narrower than Perec’s and so are her sympathies. For all her criticism of arid intellectualism and the stifling and duplicitous class system of the Parisian left, her sympathies, as seen through the sympathies of her protagonists Renéè and Paloma, are equally narrow and, if possible, even more snobbishly exclusive than those of the people they despise. The most attractive character, in the end, is Kakuro Ozu perhaps because he’s seen from outside, perhaps because his instinct is to give, to share, rather than to protect himself solipsistically against the contamination of the others. What the novel does, though, with considerable skill, is paint the picture of a world that might be ‘wealthy, hierarchical, rational, Cartesian, policed’, as Paloma notes, but that is also a world where ideas and culture as aspiration and as a source of value still count for something. A world that strikes me as essentially Parisian”.

Thank you to Charles for this wonderful review.

Please do check out Charles’s Blog and you can follow him on Twitter

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